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If Marco Polo were alive today, what tales would he tell about China and Tibet?

Dr. Andrea Galli

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In 1298, Marco Polo told astonishing stories about a marvellous land he called Cathay, modern-day China which was ruled by the Yuan dynasty. During his extraordinary journey, Marco Polo also visited Tibet, which was also under the Yuan dynasty. He was the first Westerner to refer to Tibet as a part of China, and nobody objected. Marco Polo had no idea how his observations might change the face of the globe.

Since those days, world events have gathered speed. Columbus discovered America, at first believing it was Asia; disaffected and persecuted Europeans began to populate the shores of the new continent, squeezing further inland the indigenous population. Empire builders sought new colonies ever further afield. New lands to conquer, new resources to appropriate, new riches to seize…

Societies were subjected to similar upheavals. Old forms of exploitation were reinvented, with slavery giving way to feudal serfdom; ancient and new religious beliefs spread across the planet, to capitalism and communist ideologies divided the globe and its peoples.

Following the Second World War, the US saw in Tibet a religious patent that could be exploited against communism as an ongoing propaganda campaign. It started with an armed uprising in 1959 against the People’s Republic of China, followed by the exile of the 14th Dalai Lama in India and the establishment of the Government of Tibet in Exile ruling over about 100,000 Tibetan refugees settled mainly in northern India.

Ever since, China has considered all Tibet’s pro-independence movements as part of a strategic propaganda operation abetted by Western imperialists who want to destabilize China. This view was bolstered, for example, by the CIA‘s backing of Tibetan insurgencies during the 1950s and 1960s, the support of Western NGOs for the “pro-Tibet” riots of 2008 when China hosted the Olympic Games, and the continuing self-immolations by Tibetans and Buddhist monks promoted since 2009 by the Government of Tibet in Exile, praised as courageous by the 14th Dalai Lama – although he questioned their effectiveness – and glorified by NGOs advocating human rights for Tibet.

There have been intermittent expectations of formal negotiations between the principal parties to the Tibet issue, but their zero-sum view of Tibet’s political status, reciprocal accusations and mutual suspicion have been persistent barriers. The participation of other actors has also had an effect. Many foreign states acknowledge Tibet as a part of China, while none formally recognizes the Government of Tibet in Exile – also known as the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) – yet a number of them sustain the cause of the exiles in other ways. Thousands of supporters of Tibetan independence, encouraged by Western NGOs have also rallied to this cause, including members of the world’s parliaments, rights activists, actors, musicians, and ordinary converts to Tibetan Buddhism in the West.

In reality, communications on Tibet are persistently disseminated by the CTA, Western NGOs and the Chinese government as part of well-planned and organized propaganda campaigns serving contrasting geopolitical and military interests. China is in a particularly difficult position, since it is surrounded by topographical features that make it difficult for major armies to pass through. In the southwest there is Tibet: from a military point of view, it is a solid wall that has to be held. China has a fundamental security interest in retaining Tibet as well as an economic interest in its enormous natural resources, because Tibet is also the Chinese anchor in the Himalayas with its huge and still virtually untapped reservoir of minerals, metals, water and energy. From this perspective Tibet can be considered as a major Achilles’ heel for China.

In the context of decades of propaganda during and after the Cold War, serving the different geopolitical and military interests, the concept of Shangri-La is particularly important to our understanding of how Tibet is presented. Shangri-La is a fictional place described in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by the British author James Hilton. Hilton describes it as a mystical, harmonious Himalayan valley, serenely guided by a monastery of lamas or spiritual masters. Shangri-La has evolved in the Western collective imagination into a modern surrogate of the lost Garden of Eden: a mythical utopia, a permanently happy land, isolated from the outside world, dedicated to the preservation of peace, spirituality and nature. It is an ideological fantasy representing the last refuge of Western societies from their present and historical sins of consumerism, atheism, capitalism and colonialism. The Shangri-La notion is the central constituent for manoeuvring popular opinion in the propagandistic exploitation of the collective imagination in Western countries.

The narrative of the Tibetan Government in Exile

Leaders of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) have opportunistically adopted parts of the myth of a pre-1951 Shangri-La in Tibet to promote a theocracy, from which the rulers gain legitimacy and to whose members secular Tibetans should pay obeisance, rather than being controlled by them. In promoting this idea, they use only that part of the Western idealization of Tibet, as Shangri-La, that is useful in legitimizing their status in the eyes of the West, however cementing their de-facto theocratic power within the exiled diaspora.

Because of the need for Western support of the exiled government and the significant role played by externally-based NGOs supporting Tibetan independence, Western hegemony is accepted in the diaspora’s discourses concerning Tibet and the Tibetan identity. A strategic essentialism that simplifies Tibetan identities for Westerners in the context of Shangri-La also impacts the self-identities of exiled Tibetans, many of whom accept Westernized notions of the Tibetan identity. Thus, although a modern sense of nationhood was absent in pre-1951 Tibet, CTA representations cast Tibetan nationhood as an historical reality. To gain legitimacy in the West, democratizing elements have been added to self-governance in exile, and the vocabulary of human rights, development, environmental protection, and so forth has been deployed by the CTA and supported by Western NGOs. Representations that directly fulfil the established Western image of Tibetans as inherently spiritual and peaceful have been especially prominent, forged by the personification of this utopia in the figure of the 14th Dalai Lama as a symbolic icon.

In reality, spirituality and sovereignty are linked through Tibet’s traditional system of theocratic government, in which politics and religion were tightly knit. Many exiled government officials continue promoting this system as ideal for Tibet and as an alternative to the atheistic Communist system of China. On the other hand, China has over the last three decades relaxed draconian and brutal Mao-era rules, by opening the door to private sector capitalism and by allowing individuals to practice a religion of their choice. There are now almost three times as many Buddhists in China as there are Communist Party members – there are 90 million members of Communist Party of China, some 250 million Buddhists and 200,000 registered Buddhist monks.

While the Chinese government’s approach to Buddhism has been liberal, it clearly takes the religion’s influence seriously, given its importance in Chinese society. The Chinese government is also acutely sensitive to the possibility of what it sees as external interference, especially on the delicate subject of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism.

A particularly divisive issue for the Buddhist community, both within Tibet and in the exiled communities is devotion to the Dorje Shugden deity, a 400-year old practice that began in the 17th century and has become a major tradition in Tibetan Buddhism. At the origin of the controversy lies a de facto ban on the religious practice issued by the 14th Dalai Lama decades ago. The CTA sees the religious practice of Dorje Shugden as a competing and heretical movement that may undermine their notion of the spiritual leadership of the 14th Dalai Lama inside Tibet and among Tibetan Buddhists.

The de-facto ban issued by the 14th Dalai Lama has generated considerable social tension and division in the diaspora, as well as in Tibetan society within China, leading the Chinese government to consider the Dorje Shugden controversy an important front for undermining what it says are efforts promoted by the 14th Dalai Lama aimed at destabilizing China. The religious hostility has been fed by considerable propaganda and counterpropaganda efforts during the last two decades and it is still an open battlefield that may escalate at any time. In historical terms, the implications could be reminiscent of Martin Luther’s reformation of Christianity centuries ago.

Significantly sensitive are the methodical efforts of the exiled government to silence opposing voices in the controversy, using systematic defamation and coercive methods, including the use of modern disinformation means like coordinated troll campaigns on social media and fake news campaigns. Such methods seem out of place in the peaceful Shangri-La narrative that is usually promoted, but rather more suited to an atmosphere of historical crisis like the period of the Inquisition. Additionally, it has been continuously observed that Dorje Shugden followers, monks and monasteries in Tibet and abroad are portrayed as heretic, demonic and sectarian, and are branded as Chinese Communist Party supporters or Chinese spies by most NGOs advocating in western countries for the exiled Government’s goals.

 

The role of the Western human rights NGOs

The Western NGOs present pre-1951 Tibet as Shangri-La in a way that serves to reinforce Tibet’s claim for sovereignty in the international community by capitalizing on the yearnings of Western activists for a lost social and ecological harmony. For them China is demonized as an evil force which invaded Tibet in 1951, destroying a previously harmonious, peaceful, ecological and spiritual society. While the 14th Dalai Lama has stated that “all Tibetans want more prosperity, more material development”, those material developments realized by China in contemporary Tibet are seen by the Western NGOs as an immoral cultural regression and a mean of implementing brutal oppression which primarily benefits the Chinese state and Han migrants in Tibet.

The discussion on human rights has been added and elaborated by the exiles and their NGO supporters and has a close fit with similar concerns emerging in international politics generally. While exiled critics see a human rights strategy as detracting from a focus on Tibet’s lack of independence, Chinese officials regard it as the heart of the exiles’ campaign to internationalize the Tibet issue. However, the expression of the Tibet issue as a human rights problem – the mainstay of the exiled Government’s strategy since the mid-1980s – has garnered support from across the political spectrum and provides the exiled Government and their supporting NGOs with a visibility in global politics they would not otherwise have. It stands, moreover, as a challenge to the forced dichotomy of the real versus the ideal and the hegemony of realism in politics generally.

In the last two decades, a statistical table of causalities among Tibetans from 1951 through the 1970s has been widely circulated by Western NGOs. Its total of 1.2 million deaths is based solely on unconfirmed refugee estimates, but is cited often by Western politicians and media. Such figures are characterized by unsubstantiated assertions and improbabilities criticised also by established NGOs advocating for Tibetan independence: for example the head of the Free Tibet Campaign NGO based in UK, examined the refugee interview documents and found large-scale duplications.

The official 1953 census recorded the entire population residing in Tibet at 1.3 million. Other census counts put the population within Tibet at the time at about two million. If the Chinese killed 1.2 million in the early 1960s then almost all of Tibet would have been depopulated, transformed into a killing field dotted with death camps and mass graves of which no evidence exists. Other demographic studies show that, as claimed, battle deaths would have been several times the ratio for the main belligerents in the two World Wars; alleged prison deaths would have required that one-tenth of all Tibetans were imprisoned during each year of a three-decade-long period.

While there were unquestionably substantial causalities in Tibet due to violent actions of the Chinese in the Mao era, as there were everywhere in China, the spread of misleading statistics regarding Tibet seems a clear effort to manipulate public perceptions about the real situation.

While the US has formally agreed that Tibet is an integral part of China, its Congress has nonetheless politically and financially supported the Tibetan independence movement driven by the NGOs and the exiled Government. So did the Nobel Prize Committee when it presented the peace award to the 14th Dalai Lama in 1989. Such recognitions and support ignore Chinese contributions to economic development in Tibet: the welfare policy adopted by the central government of China since the 1980s has markedly improved the life of the average Tibetan, and religious freedom has been restored.

Instead of praising the efforts of the Chinese government, the US Congress has criticized any progress made as an attempt to erase Tibetan culture, defining such a process as “cultural genocide”. This terminology has been widely exploited by the NGOs in their propaganda effort since the end of the 1980s, even after several failed attempts to apply the term of “genocide”, whose adequacy has been largely contested in the post-Mao era.

Of particular importance is one of the main propaganda tools used by the NGOs and the CTA to generate media attention and political discussion: the campaign of self-immolation in protest against Chinese rule in Tibet. This campaign has intensified since 2009, but has its roots in a few isolated cases that began around 1998 outside Tibet.

The NGOs state that self-immolation acts of Tibetans are an affirmation of the Tibetan identity in the face of “cultural genocide”. This proclamation however disregards the fact that suicide is forbidden in Buddhism. The campaign is heavily exploited around the world. In some cases acts of self-immolation are even used to promote fundraising activities, and particularly in the US, to obtain governmental subsidies, with wide support from cultural exponents like Hollywood actors or famous musicians.

Only very few of Tibet’s Buddhist clerics or exponents of the human rights community have dared to speak out in Western countries against glorifying, praising and promoting acts of self-immolation for political gain. When asking exponents of the NGOs about the justification for this practice, the answer is always evasive, with vague references to obscure roots of self-immolation traditions in the Tibetan culture.

A trilingual (Tibetan – Chinese- English) sign above the entrance to a small café in Nyalam Town, Tibet, 1993

The linking of the Tibet issue to human rights has been traced to the decision of the 14th Dalai Lama and the exiled government to internationalize in the late 1980s. The foundation of the human rights position is the principle of nonviolence, an important aspect of the public face of the exiled government, and fundamental to its policies and its exploitation of the Shangri-La myth. This has facilitated a seamless incorporation of a human rights consciousness into the approach of supportive NGOs, while simultaneously making it plausible and credible to vast popular audiences, especially to non-Tibetan observers in the West.

Human rights and other transnational issues such as the environment have attracted consent for marginalized identity groups across the globe, popularizing their political concerns and aspirations. Popular movements that pivot on “rights” challenge not only state authority, but more recently, the authority of multinational corporations as well. The effect is that many activists have been mobilized to sympathize with the NGOs advocating for Tibetan independence.

Such activists usually have different ideologies but shares principles close to the Shangri-La utopia, like for example anti-globalists or anarchists, but also ecologists or socialists or vegans… In reality, the concept of human rights diplomacy itself implies the corruption of human rights as an ideal; it is a defective concept from the standpoint of idealists, because it reflects the imperfect fit between their goals and national, political and military hegemonies. It also reflects the gap between popular, state and geo-political interests, particularly when applied with double standards. In the ideal world, rights should be above interests, but in the “real” world, they are merely ideals.

Worldwide there are about a thousand associations, foundations or charity organisations that revolve around the subjects of Tibetan independence, human rights for Tibet or the 14th Dalai Lama. A complete overview has not been established yet. However, the following NGOs (some registered as charities, some as foundations) play a crucial role in this discussion:

INTERNATIONAL CAMPAIGN FOR TIBET is an NGO (website savetibet.org), based in Washington, US. It is endowed with a 4 million USD annual budget and supports the goals of the 14th Dalai Lama and the CTA. The NGO says it promotes human rights and democratic freedom in Tibet and is active in lobbying US Congressional committees. It networks with other exiled Chinese democracy NGOs, promotes news coverage of issues in Tibet, like for example self-immolation, “cultural genocide” or anti-Dorje Shugden campaigns. Additionally it publishes two newsletters, the Tibet Press Watch and Tibetan Environment & Development News, and speaks to academics, journalists, and civic and community groups. Its main public exponent is the actor Richard Gere.

TIBET HOUSE (aka Tibet House US Cultural Center of H. H. the Dalai Lama, website tibethouse.us) was founded in 1987 by Columbia University professor Robert Thurman (father of actress Uma Thurman), actor Richard Gere and modern composer Philip Glass (among others) at the behest of the 14th Dalai Lama. It operated initially only in New York. The organisation now has affiliates in India, Mexico, Germany, Spain, the UK and Russia. Besides the preservation of the Tibetan culture, the organisation is active in supporting the political views of the 14th Dalai Lama and is very active in propaganda against Chinese rule in Tibet and China. In the US it has annual revenue of 2.5 million USD and accumulated assets of 6.5 million USD.

FREE TIBET (website freetibet.org) is a small NGO based in London, UK with an annual budget of 500,000 USD. In spite of its small budget the NGO has a strong online presence in social media. The group’s political views are aligned with those propagated by the CTA.

STUDENTS FOR A FREE TIBET is an NGO based in New York, US with a declared annual budget of 700,000 USD. The NGO says it is a network of 35’000 students working toward social justice and freedom in Tibet. Students for a Free Tibet educates young people propagating a message of Tibetan independence and works on translating that awareness into action through political, economic, and social campaigns. Students for a Free Tibet say they recognize the legal and historical status of Tibet as an independent country. This NGO was the main organizer of Tibetan protesters who disrupted the Summer Olympic ceremony, the Olympics torch relay in Beijing, 2008.

TIBET FUND (website tibetfund.org) is a foundation based in New York, US. The entity has an annual budget of about 6 million USD and cumulative assets of 8 million USD. The Tibet Fund, founded in 1981, is the principal fund raising organization working very close with the CTA. The fund partner is the organisation OFFICE OF TIBET, the official agency of the 14th Dalai Lama and the CTA based in Dharamsala, India. OFFICE OF TIBET is present in 13 countries, with bases in New Delhi, Kathmandu, Geneva, New York, Tokyo, London, Paris, Moscow, Brussels, Canberra, Pretoria, Taipei and Budapest. They are in charge of bilateral relations with different countries as well as with European Union institutions and the United Nations Organisation. The organisations have several substructures registered as Foundations in the US and abroad, like for example the OFFICE OF TIBET US or the TIBETAN COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT FUND INC. The OFFICE OF TIBET US also has a managerial function with respect to the current president of the CTA, Dr. Lobsang Sangay, who is a US citizen living in Boston.

THE DALAI LAMA TRUST (websites dalailama.com, dalailamatrust.org) is the foundation of the 14th Dalai Lama based in New York and India which administers the royalties and revenues from his intellectual properties and public events. It was filed in 2009 and in the US the foundation has annual revenues of 2 million USD with accumulated assets of 7 million USD. The trust has several substructures registered as foundations in the US and India and possibly abroad. The total assets or revenue of all structures is not known at present.

INDEPENDENT TIBET NETWORK (formerly CAMPAIGN FREE TIBET) is today a rather obscure network of activists propagating radical separatist political views (called “rangzen”) on Tibetan independence. Its website is tibettruth.com. Formed in 1988 it was a lobbying network which campaigned for justice, human rights and independence for Tibet and East Turkestan. The NGO is today linked to a partner organisation called RANGZEN ALLIANCE, registered in New York and led by Tibetan separatists. The political views of both organisations are presently close to anarchism and against the theocracy of the lamas. They are clear opponents to the CTA, which they consider unsuited to true Tibetan independence. The organisation INDEPENDENT TIBET NETWORK appeared to be originally registered in London and had possible links to the UK intelligence services. Today it has links to the Anonymous hacking group. INDEPENDENT TIBET NETWORK was very active in the 1990s, forging the notion of “cultural genocide” and birth control issues in Tibet. Since 2008, partnering with RANGZEN ALLIANCE, it also glorifies the self-immolation campaigns in Tibet.

TIBETAN CENTER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS AND DEMOCRACY (website tchrd.org) is an NGO based in Dharamsala, India, closely working with the CTA, also based in Dharamsala. The NGO says it investigates human rights issues in Tibet and amongst Tibetan minorities throughout China. Its budget is unknown. The main focus of the NGO is the coverage of issues in Tibet, like for example self-immolation, political prisoners in China and “cultural genocide”.

The response of the Chinese Government

The Chinese government portrays pre-1951 Tibet not as Shangri-La but as a feudal house of horrors, among the darkest and most backward regions in the world, and one of the regions where human rights violations were most serious. For them the mission in contemporary Tibet is considered as fulfilling a long-term civilizing assignment.

Before the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1951, the region was ruled by a theocracy and had a social hierarchy similar to pre-feudal times. Tibet was characterized by a form of institutionalized inequality that can be called serfdom: an ancient form of slavery preceding the development of the feudal system. It existed in Tibet until 1959. Exploitation was not through land-rent like in the Middle Ages in Europe but through enslavement to the aristocrats, clerics or manor owners. In return for working the land, the slaves were provided with minimal lodging, clothing and food. This form of slavery was finally abolished in Tibet only in 1959. Until that year, when China cracked down on Tibetan rebels and the 14th Dalai Lama fled to northern India, around 98% of the population was enslaved in serfdom. For example, the Drepung monastery, on the outskirts of Lhasa, was one of the world’s largest landowners with 185 manors, 25’000 serfs, 300 pastures, and 16’000 herdsmen. High-ranking lamas and secular landowners imposed crippling taxes, forced boys into monastic slavery and pilfered most of the country’s wealth – torturing disobedient serfs in a variety of brutal ways. In feudal Tibet, torture and mutilation – including gouging out eyes, pulling out tongues, severing hamstrings and amputation of limbs – were favoured punishments inflicted upon thieves, and runaway or obstructive serfs. Many materials and photos showing the limbs of serfs amputated by serf-owners in those years are kept in the Tibetan Social and Historical Relics Exhibition in the Beijing Ethnic Cultural Palace.

Earlier Western visitors to Tibet commented on the country’s theocratic despotism. In 1895, an Englishman, Dr. A. L. Waddell, wrote that the populace was under the “intolerable tyranny of monks” and the devil superstitions they had fashioned to terrorize the people. In 1904, the English traveller and writer Perceval Landon described the then Dalai Lama’s rule as “an engine of oppression.” At about that time, another English traveller, Captain W.F.T. O’Connor, observed that “the great landowners and the priests… exercise each in their own dominion a despotic power from which there is no appeal,” while the people are “oppressed by the most monstrous growth of monasticism and priest-craft.” Tibetan rulers “invented degrading legends and stimulated a spirit of superstition” among the common people.

Serf-owners literally possessed the living bodies of their serfs. Since serfs were at their disposal as their private property, they could trade and transfer them, present them as gifts, use them as collateral against debts and exchange them. Before 1951, Lhasa’s downtown area had a population of around 20’000. It was surrounded by some 1’000 tattered tents, homes of poverty-stricken people and beggars. The average life expectancy was only 35.5 years. In Tibet there was not a single school in the modern sense. The enrolment rate of school-age children was less than 2 percent, and the illiteracy rate reached 95 percent.

Over the centuries the Tibetan lords and lamas had seen the Chinese come and go and had enjoyed good relations with them. When the 14th Dalai Lama was first installed in Lhasa, it was with an armed escort of Chinese troops and an attending Chinese minister, in accordance with a centuries-old tradition. What upset the Tibetan lords and lamas in the early 1950s was that these latest Chinese were Communists. It would be only a matter of time, they feared, before the Communists started imposing their collectivist egalitarian schemes upon Tibet.

The issue flared up in 1956-57, when armed Tibetan bands ambushed convoys of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The uprising received extensive assistance from the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), including military training, support camps in Nepal, and numerous airlifts. Meanwhile in the US, the American Society for a Free Asia, a CIA-financed front, energetically publicized the cause of Tibetan resistance, with the 14th Dalai Lama’s eldest brother, Thubtan Norbu, playing an active role in that organization. The 14th Dalai Lama’s second-eldest brother, Gyalo Thondup, established an intelligence operation with the CIA as early as 1951. He later upgraded it into a CIA-trained guerrilla unit whose recruits parachuted back into Tibet later in the decade. Many Tibetan commandos and agents whom the CIA dropped into the country were chiefs of aristocratic clans or the sons of chiefs.

Whatever the oppressions introduced by the Chinese after 1959, they did eradicate slavery and the Tibetan serfdom system of unpaid labour. They eliminated the many crushing taxes, started work projects, and greatly reduced unemployment and begging. They established secular schools, thereby breaking the educational monopoly of the monasteries. And they constructed running water and electrical systems. Chinese authorities also claim to have put an end to flogging, mutilation, skinning and amputation as forms of criminal punishment.

They themselves, however, have been charged with acts of brutality by exiled Tibetans. The Chinese authorities admit to such acts, particularly during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution when the persecution of religious beliefs reached an apex in both China and Tibet. Prior to that, after the uprising in 1959, thousands of Tibetans were incarcerated. And during the Mao-era “Great Leap Forward”, forced collectivization and grain farming were imposed on the Tibetan peasantry, sometimes with disastrous effect on production, which led to famine and substantial related causalities.

Then, in the late 1970s, China began relaxing controls and tried to undo some of the damage inflicted during the previous two decades. In 1980, the Chinese government initiated reforms reportedly designed to grant Tibet a greater degree of self-rule and self-administration. Tibetans would now be allowed to cultivate private plots, sell their harvest surpluses, decide for themselves what crops to grow, and keep yaks and sheep. Communication with the outside world was again permitted, and frontier controls were eased to permit some Tibetans to visit exiled relatives in India and Nepal.

By the mid-1980s many of the principal lamas had begun to shuttle back and forth between China and the exiled communities abroad, restoring their monasteries in Tibet and helping to revitalize Buddhism there, including the popular religious practice of worshipping the deity Dorje Shugden. This exchange of religious teaching and movement of clerics across the Chinese border in the Tibetan communities has generated, among the CTA and the 14th Dalai Lama, fears of an accelerating loss of spiritual authority with respect to rival monastic doctrines, leading to the de-facto ban of Dorje Shugden devotion and consequent religious tensions.

In the 1990s, large numbers of Han, the ethnic group comprising over 95 percent of China’s immense population, began migrating into Tibet. Demographic issues in Tibet have always been strongly affected by conflict, migration and family planning. However, the NGO Tibetan Youth Congress has compared China’s migration of Han Chinese to Tibet to the Nazi extermination of Jews. Exiled leaders contend that the Tibetan population was 6 million in 1951 (in contrast of the figures of around 2 million of the 1953 census) and the same a half-century later, because the Chinese government killed al least 1.2 million Tibetans through war, imprisonment, execution, or famine. The figure is cited in Western media, but has been challenged by demographers. The 14th Dalai Lama has accused China of demographic aggression. Tibetan exiles and NGO supporters argue that family planning restrictions contribute to “cultural genocide” and assert that coercive birth control is applied. In reality, according to the 2000 census, there are 6 million Tibetans and 1.5 million non-Tibetans migrants in Tibet; additionally there are 5.4 million Tibetan migrants in Chinese territories outside the Tibetan plateau.

In spite of the demographic factors, Tibetan exiles and NGO supporters argue that the Chinese government carries out development in Tibet with little regard for the views of Tibetans, and that the Chinese Treasury profits exploit the region through state enterprises in sectors such as in mining and timber that operate in Tibet. It is argued that infrastructure in Tibet is constructed to facilitate military operations and the central Chinese government’s exploitation of resources, while most Tibetans, who are peasants and herders, are shut out of development or at least have benefited from it much less than the Han Chinese migrants in Tibetan areas.

In reality, the Chinese government sustains a net loss from Tibetan areas because it heavily subsidizes infrastructure development and government services. It argues that Tibetans are the principal beneficiaries of Tibet’s development, which provides opportunities and facilities open to all, including elements of preferential policies for Tibetans. Government statements emphasize that most Han Chinese in Tibet are temporary migrants engaged in small trade and thus should not be the most significant elements in any assessment of who, among long-term residents of Tibet, benefits from development.

This includes most rural Tibetans, who have experienced significant increases in income levels, education, health care, transport, environmental protection and communications over the past decades. For example the education system has been tailored to the cultural specificities of Tibetans by developing primary level schooling in the Tibetan language and secondary level schooling on a bilingual basis, adding Chinese languages and supplementary English lessons. Another example is the environment: it is argued that it is best preserved using world standards as a baseline, and is a major asset for the development of tourism in the region as well as in the safeguarding of cultural assets.

What would Marco Polo say?

Marco Polo once said of his travels: “I have not told the half of what I saw because I knew I would not be believed”. Tibet seems like a celestial paradise held in chains, but the west’s tendency to romanticise the country’’s Buddhist culture has distorted mainstream Western views. Popular belief is that under the lamas, Tibetans lived contentedly in a spiritual, non-violent culture, uncorrupted by lust or greed: but in reality society was extremely brutal, comparable to the cruelty of the Islamic State which devastated the Middle East societies in recent years. As much as we might wish it to be otherwise, feudal theocratic Tibet was a far cry from the romanticized Shangri-La so enthusiastically promoted by Western human rights NGOs.

What additional tales would Marco Polo have told today? Maybe that Tibet has become a major tourist destination for idealists? Or that only a handful of Tibetans would welcome a return of theocratic and aristocratic clans? That the Shangri-La myth is an ideological projection for offering redemption from the sins of consumerism? Or that the whole purpose of promoting the Shangri-La myth is to trade indulgences like Pope Leo X did in 1517? That maybe one day a Buddhist “Martin Luther” will come and nail a Manifesto on the gates of the Potala palace in Lhasa? Or that the Government of Tibet in Exile is a puppet of the CIA, or a relict of the Cold War? We don’t know, nor do we know what effect his words would have had. As the great navigator himself noted: “I speak and speak, but the listener retains only the words he is expecting. It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear”.

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East Asia

The SCO needs strategic consensus and cooperation in an era of uncertainties

Wang Li

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During his latest state visit to Russia, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Putin agreed to bring the two countries’ relationship to a “new era of greater development at a higher level”. Given this, the two core member states and the driving force of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), China and Russia, will be expected to facilitate a broader prospect for the cooperation among the SCO member states in accordance with the “Shanghai spirit” during the 19th meeting of the Council of Heads of State of the SCO that was scheduled on June 4in Bishkek.

Founded in 2001, the original six-states of the SCO—China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan—signed “The Shanghai Cooperation Organization Charter”. It puts the priorities on mutual trust and neighborliness among the member states; and joint efforts to ensure peace, security and stability in the region; and to build up a democratic, fair and rational international order. Since then, these are enshrined into the “Shanghai Spirit” that upholds internally mutual trust, reciprocal consultations, respect for cultural diversity and common development and externally non-alignment, non-targeting any third party, and inclusiveness. From the very beginning, it has been an important mission for the organization to fight against the “three evils”, which refer to terrorism, separatism, and extremism. The concept was first defined in June 2001 during the first SCO summit. Since then, taking regional security and stability as a priority, the SCO has been making unremitting efforts to crack down on the “three evils” in joint efforts to advance the cooperation and development.

True, the SCO has undergone a substantial development since its inception and now becomes a comprehensive regional organization with the profound dimensions beyond the region. Looking into the geographical locations of the eight SCO member states, it is surely the largest regional security organization in the world, accounting for nearly half of the world’s population and over 1/5 of global GDP, not to mention two permanent members of UN Security Council—China and Russia; and two most populous nations on the Earth—China and India. During the previous 17 years, the SCO has developed into a vigorous platform with upholding the Shanghai Spirit based on the inclusiveness and common development. According to the current SCO Secretary-General Vladimir Norov, the SCO will continue close cooperation with the aim of implementing the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy including joint activities and recommendations of the relevant UN Security Council resolutions. For sure, with its all full members alongside four observer states and six dialogue partners, the SCO has acted actively as an international cooperation organization. Considering the uncertain circumstances of the world, the 19thSCO summit will focus on security and development among other cooperative tasks.

Here, security involves a much broader spectrum. In effect, the SCO has highlighted joint efforts to ensure peace, security and stability in the region. During the latest summit between Xi and Putin, they assured that the comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination of the two countries has not only benefited the two peoples, but has also become an important force for safeguarding global security and strategic stability. To that end, China and Russia would continue to strengthen coordination on major international and regional issues, jointly deal with the challenges of unilateralism and protectionism, and maintain global peace and stability. As Putin put it, since Russia is ready to provide China with sufficient oil and gas, including more soybeans and other farm produce exported to China, the two sides expect a faster alignment between the Eurasian Economic Union and the Belt and Road Initiative. This requires security cooperation involving all member states of the SCO.

If we take a close look into the Qingdao summit of the SCO which was held in 2018, it highlighted the security cooperation in the fields such as cross-border organized crime, gun smuggling, drug trafficking and internet security as they have become the new security challenges for the region and beyond. , now all the SCO member states agree to expand the fields of security cooperation to drug trafficking and organized crime. To that end, China and Russia have closely worked alongside all other members with a view to building an efficient intelligence-sharing system among SCO member states. Now as a highly integrated security organization, the SCO needs to collectively deal with the common challenges according to their shared responsibilities.

In an era of globalization, which is full of challenges and opportunities as well, all member states of the SCO are aware that while security acts the condition for development, the latter is the insurance of long-term stability. Due to this, one of the Shanghai Spirit’s original goals is to seek common development. Since 2013, Xi has urged the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) taken deep roots and substantially benefit the SCO member states and beyond. As the BRI is the basic path to realizing common wealth, the SCO has not only continued to sublimate the Shanghai Spirit, but also to serve the interests of all the member states and the whole region as well.

During the meeting at the presidential residence in Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan, right after Xi Jinping and his entourage arrived on June 13, Chinese President Xi and his Kyrgyz counterpart, Sooronbay Jeenbekov discussed joint efforts to promote bilateral ties. Xi also stated that China is ready to share experience in state governance with Kyrgyzstan to achieve common development and prosperity, hailing the solid outcomes in the joint construction of the Belt and Road. The two sides agreed to step up coordination within multilateral frameworks, including the SCO and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, stick to multilateralism, and oppose protectionism and unilateralism, so as to contribute to building a community with a shared future for humanity.

Now the SCO Summit takes place in Kyrgyz located in central Asia and aims to synchronize its position towards Eurasian unity. The SCO serves a platform for jointly upholding multilateralism and the free trade system and opposing unilateralism and bullying tactics. To that end, the SCO and BRI would like to be integrated with the pace of the security and development in which a new vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable path would suit Asia and boost the common interests of all. For China, Xi is obviously looking forward to receiving the firm and frank supports from the SCO to take further measures by Beijing in safeguarding peace and stability and cracking down three evils in China’s borders areas, such as Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and Tibet.

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East Asia

Civilisationalism: Ignoring early warning signs at one’s peril

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A controversy about a University of British Columbia invitation to a Chinese advocate of forced re-education and assimilation of ethnic minorities highlights the risks involved in ignoring early stage civilisationalism, the emerging system of principles of governance underwriting a new world order that defines states in civilizational rather than national terms and legitimizes violations of human rights.

While the invitation sparked opposition that raised freedom of speech issues, it also spotlighted the consequences of US, European and Muslim failure to recognize initial indications that China was moving away from its long-standing policy of promoting inter-communal harmony by preserving minority cultures and ensuring that they benefitted from economic growth.

The erosion of China’s long-standing policy has consequences far beyond the boundaries of Tibet and China’s troubled north-western province of Xinjiang that is home to its Turkic Muslim population. It legitimizes repression of minority rights across the globe raising the spectre of inter-communal strife in societies that have long sought to foster variations of multi-culturalism and social harmony.

Calls for a rethink of China’s ethnic policy emerged in 2012 after two men set themselves on fire  outside Tibetan Buddhism’s holiest temple in the center of Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. The International Campaign for Tibet, an advocacy group, last year published the names of 155 Tibetans who have self-immolated since 2009.

Back in 2012, military officials, businessmen, intellectuals, netizens, and dissidents asserted that the self-immolations attested to a failure of policy in what was a public debate of a long secretive and sensitive topic.

The debate was fuelled by concerns that China’s official recognition of 56 different nationalities resident within its borders risked it becoming another example of the post-Communist break-up of states such as the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.

It was also informed by a series of incidents in Xinjiang and other parts of China, including inter-communal violence in 2004 between Han Chinese and Hui Muslims, widely viewed as China’s most integrated Muslim community, that left some 150 people dead.

It was in that environment that Hu Angang, an economist and founding director of Tsinghua University’s Center for China Studies, one of China’s most influential think tanks, urged the government to adopt an imposed melting pot approach that would create a “collective civic culture and identity.” It was an invitation extended to Mr. Angang that sparked controversy at the University of British Colombia.

Mr. Hu’s policy recommendations, articulated in a widely published article co-authored in 2011 by fellow researcher Hu Lianhe, a pioneer of terrorism studies in China who has since become a senior official of the Chinese communist party’s United Front Work department in Xinjiang, appear to have provided a template or at least a framework for China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims.

Xinjiang serves as a prime example of the risks of failing to respond to civilisationalism’s early warning signs.

Up to one million people are believed to have been detained in re-education camps dubbed “’vocational education’ and employment training centres” by the government where inmates are taught Mandarin, allegedly forced to violate Muslim dietary and religious practices, and browbeaten with the notion that Xi Jinping thought, the precepts of China’s president, supersede Islamic teaching.

Messrs. Hu warned that regional ethnic elites and interests enabled by China’s acceptance of what amounted to minority rights could lead to separatism on the country’s strategic frontiers. They suggested that the central committee of the Communist party had recognized this by pushing in 2010 for “ethnic contact, exchange and blending.”

To achieve that, the two men advocated removing ethnicity from all official documents; demographic policies that would water down geographic concentration of ethnic minorities and ensure a ‘proper’ population mix; emphasis on the use of Mandarin as the national language; promotion of China as the prime identity of minorities; and taking steps to counter religious extremism.

James Leibold, a China scholar, who raised alarm bells early on and focused attention on Messrs. Hu’s analysis and the Chinese debate, lamented at the time that “few in the West…seem to be listening.”

Mr. Leibold echoed his warning six years later when Mr. Lianhe last August stepped for the first time onto the international stage to defend the Chinese crackdown at a meeting of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

“The emergence of Hu Lianhe portends a significant shift in both the institutional and policy direction emanating out of Beijing, and suggests that what is happening in Xinjiang is the leading edge of a new, more coercive ethnic policy under Xi Jinping’s ‘New Era’ of Chinese power, one that seeks to accelerate the political and cultural transformation of non-Han ethnic minorities,” Mr. Leibold said.

Describing Mr. Lianhe as an influential party official and intellectual, Mr. Leibold suggested China was acting in Xinjiang and Tibet on the official’s assertion in 2010 that “stability is about liberating man, standardizing man, developing man and establishing the desired working social order.” Mr. Lianhe advocated adopting his approach across the country.

In Xinjiang, standardization translates into government announcements that local officials are visiting Uyghur homes during this year’s fasting month of Ramadan to ensure that they are not observing the religious commandment.

“We must take effective action to end the gossiping about high level Party organs; finding fault, feigning compliance, and praising in public while singing a different tune in private or when alcohol is on the table”, Mr. Leibold quoted a confidential memo written by local officials in Xinjiang as saying.

In hard-line remarks to this weekend’s Shangri-La Asian Security Dialogue in Singapore, Chinese defense minister Wei Fenghe, wearing a military uniform with a chest full of ribbons, asserted that “the policy in Xinjiang is absolutely right because over the past two years there is no single terrorist attack in Xinjiang.

The living standards of the local people have improved. The number of tourists to Xinjiang is over 150 million people…. The average GDP of people in Xinjiang is 7,500 US dollars… Xinjiang has carried out vocational education and training centres to ensure that there are no terrorist attacks, to help these people deradicalize and help these people have some skills. Then they can better reintegrate into society. Isn’t that a good thing?” General Wei asked.

It is good thing on the assumption that economic progress can ultimately and sustainably trump cultural and/or ethnic aspirations and that it justifies a policy that critics have dubbed cultural genocide by in the words of Mr. Leibold abolishing “non-Han cultural, linguistic and religious practices” and eroding social trust.

The policy’s success depends on the sustainable Uyghur internalization through re-education and repression of religious and cultural practices as a survival strategy or out of fear.

General Wei’s defense of the policy notwithstanding, renowned China scholar Yitzhak Shichor concluded in a recent study that the defense minister’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has so far refrained from involvement in maintaining internal security in Xinjiang, making it the responsibility of para-military forces.

“That could change if the civilian police force and PAP fail in their mission,” Mr. Shichor quoted former US army and military intelligence China expert Dennis J. Blasko as saying. Mr. Blasko was referring to the People’s Armed Police by its acronym PAP.

General Wei and Mr. Hu’s Xinjiang’s statements are but the most extreme example of civilizationalist politics that have globally given rise to Islamophobia; Hindu nationalism; rising anti-Semitism; jihadist massacres of minorities including Christians and Yazidis, lax attitudes towards white supremacism and efforts by some leaders to recreate ethnically and/or religiously homogeneous societies.

Civilisationalists’ deemphasizing of human, women’s and minority rights means reduced likelihood that incidents of radicalization and ethnic and religious conflict can be pre-empted. The risk of conflict and societal strife are enhanced by increased obsession with migration that erases escaping to safer harbours as an option.

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East Asia

Security in the Korean Peninsula remains fragile

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North Korea’s nuclear program was initially conceived useful to provide necessary wiggle room to Pyongyang to attain the objectives of normalizing relations with the US ensuring its security as well as lessening its overdependence on China. However, the country later pursued a hard-line approach in the face of heightened US sanctions. In this context, the first summit meeting between the heads of North Korea and the US in Singapore on June 12, 2018 was conceived to break new grounds in ushering in peace in the Korean Peninsula by ending long-years of isolation of North Korea from US and its allies and heralding the process of denuclearization in the peninsula.

However, many relevant questions needed answers as the process of dialogue ensued. For instance, the North Korean regime sought answers whether the denuclearization process would involve the simultaneous process of wrapping up of American extension of nuclear deterrence and missile defence system to South Korea? Second, whether the withdrawal of US troops from the Korean Peninsula was to be discussed? Third, the question that bothered the US leaders and officials alike was whether North Korea would be sincere to the denuclearization process and objectives? Based on its perception of the other party to the negotiation, US chose to insist on the unilateral abandonment of North Korean nuclear program and refused to waive sanctions until North Korea denuclearized completely. The negotiation process has been conceived as a zero sum game by Washington whereas Pyongyang is expecting returns for each move it takes. This has brought the process of negotiations to a stalemate and mutual distrust has reached its peak.

The American approach seems to be guided by the conviction that a deep-sense of insecurity, aggressive nationalism, and consolidation of power by the leader Kim-Jong-un drives North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. While many experts argued that the nuclear program was intended to serve as a deterrent against foreign military intervention to the internationally isolated North Korean regime, the regime must have been emboldened to pursue a hard-line approach toward developing nuclear arsenal by learning from the instances how relinquishing Libya’s nuclear program would have made it easier for the US-supported uprising to topple and assassinate Muammar Gaddafi. On the other side, many skeptics who suspect that North Korea would not disarm argue that the country has been relentlessly pursuing nuclear program for coercive purposes rather than for deterrence with an objective to drive a wedge between the US and South Korea and forge a unified Korea. The obfuscated perceptions that each carried about the other stifled the negotiation process.

John R. Bolton, the White House national security adviser condemned recent North Korean short-range ballistic missiles tests and said how the tests clearly violated United Nations Security Council resolutions and President Trump expressed his unhappiness with the tests initially but then played down their importance. On the other side, North Korea has not only blamed the US for its continuing sanctions campaign as well as the seizure of one of the country’s biggest cargo ships, it has not cringed from accusing the latter of showing bad faith in negotiations by conducting nuclear and missile tests and military drills as a way to forcefully subjugate North Korea while it advocated dialogue at the same time. It has been alleged that the US had conducted a subcritical nuclear test on February 13, just days before the second summit meeting. North Korea points to how high-ranking US officials did not budge from insulting the dignity of its supreme leadership and calling North Korea a “rogue regime”. Meanwhile, the South Korean Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported that Kim Hyok-chol and foreign ministry officials who conducted working-level preparations for the summit meeting in Hanoi in February were executed a month later.

While the US accused the North Korean regime from backing away from its promises and questioned the regime’s sincerity in following up the first summit’s denuclearization targets, North Korea considered that the summit in Singapore is the first move towards peace in the Korean peninsula to be followed by more such dialogues. The Korean regime alleged the US was expecting too much from a single summit without reciprocating to Pyongyang’s initial efforts at destroying the tunnels at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site (the only nuclear site), freezing of nuclear and missile tests and returning of American prisoners. North Korea argues for a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War (1950) and security guarantees from the US that would prevent America from attacking North Korea in future. While Russia and China wish to see a denuclearized North Korea for regional peace and trade but they view the American stringent measures as attempts to dwarf the influence of potential threats and spread its own. While Russia and China would seek to prevent North Korea from succumbing to US-led sanctions, Iran was skeptical and critical of the American move from the beginning and warned North Korea against trusting the American President who could cancel the agreement within hours. Mounting American pressures on North Korea without considering efforts at reaching out to the long-isolated country with deeper engagements would only build mutual distrust and would force Pyongyang to look out for assistance from countries which share similar concerns on American hegemony. While it is evident that the US policy of putting North Korea under sanctions until it denuclearizes itself is aimed at forestalling brewing tensions in the Korean Peninsula with rising threats from the regime’s muscular ambitions of developing nuclear and missile programs, the unilateral thrust in the policy is unlikely to yield results unless US considers negotiating peace a steady as well as a reciprocal process.

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